Kathleen Wilson

Stony Brook University


If camp is the performance of a culture in quotes, to paraphrase Susan Sontag, then the theatrical practices of East India Company employees abroad must surely qualify as one of the most ‘English’ of templates for how that worked on the ground. In settings such as Calcutta and Bengkulu, Sumatra, earnest, all-male casts of EIC employees performed the comedies and tragedies of the London stage for mixed-race and cross-gender audiences who were well-attuned to the everyday performances of alterity, artifice and exaggeration all around them.  At the Calcutta Theatre, gender-specific dressing rooms aided in the suspension of disbelief (or at least avoided surface reality to prepare for the expression of a truth of character). The performance however, whether behind the scenes or on the stage, revealed a degree of titillation and comfort with gender ambiguity, artifice and exaggeration, not to mention sexual fluidity, that exceeded conventional alignments. Here, in the changing room, ‘Calista [was] calling for her Barber, in the gruff voice of a Boatswain, or knocking down her Sirdar Bearer, with the dexterity of a Broughton, for neglecting to bring her Shift.’ There (on the stage) ‘the Audience are as sparing of their applause, as if it cost them money, and [were prone] ‘to laugh even in the deepest Scenes of Tragedy’, so that ‘the entrance of a Sciolto all pale and bloody, when he comes to expire on the Stage’ was laughed at more heartily than ‘Scrub himself’. And then to the streets, where muslin-clad throngs of Indian men in gold earrings ‘present[ed] to the mind…the idea of an assembly of females’: theatrical and social performance intertwined to show the ease through which gender and cultural ambiguity in colonial contexts presented forms of ‘camp’ which continue to influence our own.